carts and people seemed to be heading there. The street was busy, a bobbing mass of hats in front of her: caps and homburgs, straw hats and bonnets.
Away from the back streets, and the nearer she walked to the Bull Ring, a host of smells mingled together: roasting coffee, freshly baked bread, fresh horse manure and the rough smoke of cigarettes. There was so much to see, and smell and hear, the clatter of carts, the delivery men and market stallholders bustling about hollering at each other.
Jess felt her spirits soar. This is my new home, she thought. It’s where Mom came from and I’m going to like it here, even if it is rough and ready. At least it’s nice to see a place with a bit of life in it for a change!
The Bull Ring teemed with people moving round the stalls which seemed to sell everything you could possibly imagine. Jess wove a path between piles of fruit and veg and crocks and rags, looking at everything. There were flowers and birds in cages, live chickens clucking, women with trays of lavender, sweets and cakes, a knife-grinder, sparks showering from his grindstone . . . Tarpaulins over the stalls protected the holders from heat or rain and they stood behind their stalls waving and all trying to see who could yell the loudest.
‘Get yer peaches ’ere – luvverly peaches!’
‘Best spuds in town . . .’
‘Oranges over ’ere – sweet and juicy!’ In the background the shrill voices of lads selling the Despatch competed with them. Jess saw a man walking in small circles waving a Bible and shouting and the stout lady selling flowers was in full voice. She found herself grinning affectionately. Flipping noisy lot, these Brummies! And now she was going to be one of them.
The thought of getting a job almost slipped her mind for a time. She wandered on, up New Street, past the Great Western Railway Station at Snow Hill. Dinnertime came and went. She ate her piece of bread in a church yard and ambled on, until gradually it dawned on her she had no idea where she was.
On the corner of a main street she saw a policeman.
‘Please – can yer tell me where Digbeth is?’ she asked.
He stared stonily ahead and there was such a long silence she thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then suddenly he said, ‘Well unless you was thinking of going via Wolver’ampton, yer’d be best advised to turn round.’
Eventually, tired now, she found herself back in the Bull Ring again. In a side street the aroma of coffee made her mouth water. Perhaps she could afford a minute or two for a drink . . .
The little shop had a sign outside saying ‘A.E. Mather – Coffee and Tea House’. In the window Jess could see plates with a few cakes still left on them. A little girl in filthy, ragged clothes was standing with her face pressed up against the window.
Poor little mite, Jess thought. I wonder when she last had a meal in her belly.
She was about to offer her a penny for a cake when the child scampered away and in the place where she’d stood Jess saw the little sign in the window. ‘Help Required.’
It was gloomy inside, sawdust on the floor, a few plain wooden tables squeezed in round the room. At one sat two women with tall, thick glasses of tea in front of them. Jess felt them sizing her up.
‘What can I get yer? Coffee or tea?’ A thickset man with a moustache spoke to her from behind the narrow counter at the back. On it sat two or three plates draped with white cloths.
Jess went to him shyly. ‘I’ve come about the sign.’
‘Sign?’ The man’s eyes twinkled. ‘A sign in the celestial ’eavens, would that be? A portent and wonder?’
‘No,’ Jess said earnestly. ‘The one in the window.’
‘Ah, go on with yer, wench – I were pulling yer leg.’
‘Oh. I see.’ She felt foolish, but the man was smiling at her.
‘Why – you offering? Only we’re short-’anded, see. The wife’s just ’ad another babby and she ain’t back on ’er feet yet. It might be only for a week or two,
Todd Burpo, Sonja Burpo, Lynn Vincent, Colton Burpo